24. Magic- Pre-Operational Thinking - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

24. Magic- Pre-Operational Thinking

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Pre-operational processing occurs after the first stage of sensory-motor processing (Learning-Theories, 2010).  In sensory-motor processing, the infant is stimulated by and interacts with the environment through his or her senses: touch, taste, sound, and smell.  The infant takes in stimulation.  By around 1½ years, he or she starts trying to make sense of the world.  He or she develops schema about causation, predictability, origins, etc.  Substituting for Piaget's terminology- basically, replacing "operations" with the word "rules" offers insight to the infant's processing.  The infant begins to develop his or her sense of the rules of how the world works.  However, at the early stage of pre-operational thinking, which can be seen as the pre-rules stage, the world is magical.  It is not clear to the infant how and why things occur in the world.  Much of the infant's nascent logic is based on association of paired experiences rather seeing a true causal effect.  This is associative logic which is that two things that are associated with one another have some causal relationship.  For example, if daddy sneezes and coincidentally the doorbell rings, the young child's new rule of the world is that "Daddy's sneezes make the doorbell ring!"  In this stage, the child makes up many rules, called schema by Piaget that may be objectively illogical and the source of great humor to adults, and sometimes of great anxiety for the child.

Moreover at this critical stage, the child is highly vulnerable to internalizing false, arbitrary, and harmful rules/schema presented to them by unaware or, often stressed or especially emotionally distraught adults.  Some individuals in their family-of-origin receive psychically harmful rules or explanations from frustrated and other dysfunctional parents.  "You knew better than that!"  "It's your own fault you can't go."  "I love you," following a smack.  "I'll always be here for you," yet accompanied with physical and/or emotional abandonment.  In more democratic societies, the rules of the society tend to be more concrete and consistent.  In totalitarian and feudal societies, the rules of the society are instead based on the whims of tyrannical warlords and corrupt officials.  Good or bad luck, karma, destiny, or other expressions of magic are seen as determining ones experience or fate.  Individuals from such societies are similar to individuals emotionally or psychologically injured in dysfunctional families.  All such individuals are vulnerable to internalizing false, arbitrary, inconsistent, and/or harmful rules/schema presented to them.

Movement to the next stage of cognitive development- concrete operations comes from the consistent experience of concrete rules working well.  Concrete logical rules with clear cause and effect, rather than magic where causes and effects seem arbitrary.  The child may not experience consistent concreteness because of the erratic behavior of his or her adults. "You should have known… you knew!  What'd you expect?!"  If this happens the child will stay stuck in pre-operational thinking trying to figure out what is and has been going on.  If told he or she should have known better, the non-critiquing child begins to expect him/herself to have mind reading ability to accurately predict others.  And, as the therapist knows just about everyone remains pretty lousy at mind reading even his or her most intimate partner.  Many individuals get stuck in the pre-operational stage because of stress, trauma, or abuse.  Or while under emotional stress for example, with hurt or distress in an intimate relationship, they regress to it.  Individuals and couples often ask for magical interventions from the therapist: a transformative communication exercise, interpretation, guidance, or a recommendation for a life changing (that is, change the partner) book, video, or class.  "How many sessions will it take?"  The therapist may be tempted to answer, "It took you 33 and 36 years respectively and 10 years together to get this messed up, and you expect a half-dozen 50-minute sessions to be enough?  I'm a psychotherapist, not Merlin the Wizard!"  Yet, from the perspective of a three-year-old for whom mom or dad often magically solves the child's problems, the expectation seems reasonable.  The demand for magic is arguably developmentally appropriate for young children, but unfortunately not for adults.  And not from a therapist!

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu